Clearspeak

Carl Perkins knew the difference between suede and swayed when he wrote his famous 1957 song

Carl Perkins knew the difference between suede and swayed when he wrote his famous 1955 song

Most folks shake their heads and slowly walk away when I begin complaining about poor writing.

Folks agree, but shrug their shoulders. Not worth their time.

My Old School ways are woven through my core, thanks to feisty newsmen and tough editors.

Getting a name misspelled is a firing offense, one editor yelled at me.

Today I’m sifting through a raft of college student papers.

I find the most common mistakes confuse there with their, effect with affect, off of with on, reader’s with readers’ and data is with data are.

You can teach good writing, but I’m grading papers for students who’ve already passed writing requirements.

Their writing should be better than it is.

My staff and I circle errors but they continue to appear, over and over.

Thing is: I don’t think students care.

And some organizations don’t care.

I recently reviewed a questionnaire on a website for errors.

Here is the text that appears if you skip a required field:

These Fields Were Missing or Need Correction
The data you just supplied contains 1 omission or data type mismatch.
This problem will have an explanation above it.
Both the explanation and the problem will be in a box.
Data Validation:
Some fields are required by the institution to have a value. Other fields need the data to satisfy length limitations or certain formatting constraints. To postpone data validation until you submit the form to the institution, press the following button
.

The Orwellian doublespeak seems like nonsense.

I suggested that a one-line substitution would be less confusing:

You’ve missed one of the required fields. Click the box below to complete the information.

The company managers?

They didn’t make the change despite my argument the communication reflected poorly on them.

Doublespeak isn’t clearspeak.

The website information is so daft it’s almost humorous.

Some of the student papers have errors that are oddly humorous. One student said audiences will be suede by an information campaign.

Another used the injunction “all told” and spelled it “all towed.”

My favorite colloquialism—for all intents and purposes—was written as:

For all intensive purposes.

But what makes me cross is the grammar-school error of mismatched nouns and verbs, and nouns paired with wrong pronouns.

An applicant forgot to include their photograph.

The media organization have closed foreign bureaus.

When I worked in journalism and public communication—before I became a professor and researcher—we held fast to a maxim.

If we published errors—misspelled names and poor grammar—readers and other publics would be less likely to trust us.

If we could make a spelling mistake, then readers might make the leap that information we presented lacked veracity.

In writing news, you can’t afford mistrust.

And it’s true in academics and in business, and it’s true for websites, social media, advertising, brew-pubs, coffee-shops—you name it.

I entrust my money to a bank, so I figure its communication better be sound.

And for the most part, the bank’s language and presentation are clear.

Still, whenever I transfer money from a mobile system, the bank congratulates me with a verbal high five, complete with exclamation point.

Congratulations! Your transaction was successful!

The hyperbolic message is offensive—not because of errors—but because I don’t need an ego-boosting compliment from an institution merely doing its job.

I believe the success of a transaction rests on the bank’s shoulders, not mine.

Seems odd that we have traded accuracy for an ego boost.

12 December 2014

#writeclearly

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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